Luton Borough Council chose to renew its IT contract rather than go with a new provider. The council’s technology lead tells Gill Hitchcock how it shifted to an outcomes-based approach – and why a flexible 10-year contract can still be a good deal.
Luton Borough Council extended its long-term IT deal with Civica earlier this year – Photo credit: Flickr, Public domain
A week is a long time in politics, a year is a long time in technology and most people would say that it’s impossible to plan a decade ahead when it comes to digital.
But at time when many local authorities are ditching long-term IT deals, Luton Borough Council appeared to buck the trend earlier this year when it announced it had extended its deal with Civica by another decade.
According to Jayne Robinson, Luton’s interim service director for transformation and technology, this decision wasn’t taken lightly: contract renegotiations between the council and the company took a lengthy 14 months.
Luton looked into the prospects of a five-year deal, she says, but the benefits didn’t stack up against a new flexible arrangement.
“We invested in the renegotiation to make sure it was absolutely the right thing,” says Robinson. “Plus, we are working with a partner we have already invested in and we will reap the benefits from a different emphasis, one based on partnership.”
Back in 2011 when long-term IT deals were in vogue, Luton agreed its original decade-long contract with Civica. After five years – the point at which it could renegotiate – the council seized an opportunity.
“We really wanted to change the scope and emphasis of the work that Civica was doing so that it could shape and support our service delivery,” says Robinson.
“The original contract was very specification-based and we wanted to move much more towards outcomes,” she says.
“In the past, because we were structured differently and the emphasis of the contract was different, we would say ‘This is what we want’ and they would give it to us. But then we would say ‘Well, actually that’s not what we want at all’. And Civica would say, ‘Yes, we could have told you that’.”
The renegotiations concentrated on meeting the expectations of user groups – staff, council members and local residents – and to ensure that the council matches the levels of innovation and efficiency in the retail and travel sectors.
Under the previous arrangement Civica upgraded and refreshed equipment, managed security and Public Service Network compliance, and ran the help desk. Now, Robinson says, it is also providing expertise and capability.
“It’s really supporting our digital delivery,” she says. “There are technical things like servers, resilience and consistency of service. They are the bread and butter. But this new contract needs to move us forward as an organisation in our digital and technical capability. The old arrangement wasn’t ready for that.”
Underpinning the new partnership is Luton’s digital strategy, which seeks to change the way people access council services through a rapid switch to less expensive channels and a boost in opportunities for self-service. The council also announced an ambitious £1.5bn inward investment framework last year.
The new deal with Civica includes the development of apps, the redesign of services and mobile working, as well as automating telephony and adopting cloud computing. There is also work focused on encouraging communication giants like BT or Virgin to invest in the town’s connectivity.
On top of this, there is support for the council’s commercial activities, in particular its commercial arm, Luton Traded Services.
This is a revenue raiser for Luton, which uses it to sell support to 20 schools across Bedfordshire; provide legal services to Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service; and to provide research and geospatial information to Dacorum and Ipswich councils.
Another element of the contract requires that Civica works with a variety of contractors and, where possible, to use the town’s SMEs. Robinson says that this is better both in terms of cost to the council and because the partnership will benefit from the local knowledge of those SMEs.
“The contract is based around innovation and our governance framework allows Civica to bring in new ideas from external companies – not just Civica-associated companies – but ones they know can deliver against the outcomes we ask for,” says Robinson.
The council also intends to look beyond Civica for innovative ideas: staff will be encouraged to join Robinson at innovation board meetings and spell out what they need to deliver services. Local businesses will also be invited to contribute their ideas, while school and universities will be involved, allowing younger people to help develop Luton’s website, apps and more.
“We already have local area forums and participation groups and we’ll continue to promote these through our website and promotion within the town,” says Robinson.
“In the past, we’ve used tenants’ groups to help us design forms. That sounds a bit basic but we will certainly be asking them to help us design the customer journey, which doesn’t quite flow at the moment.”
And it is the taxpayers that Robinson refers back to when asked about the value of the contract. Although she won’t be drawn on the exact figure – “Sometimes numbers can be taken out of context,” she says – she emphasises that Luton takes its responsibility to residents seriously and has created a value-for-money business case for the partnership.
But how will the authority ensure its long-term deal is a success? “The key is having a contract that is robust, that has good governance and strong management and to focus on what it is you actually want to achieve,” says Robinson. “It’s also important that both parties are fully brought into it, which is exactly what we’ve done.”
She admits, however, that if Luton had not already been a long way down the road of its ongoing investment framework, it may have struck a shorter deal. At this point, a 10-year commitment was what suited Luton best.
“There is a place for long and short term contracts. It always depends on the individual organisation.”